Collage created for the exhibit by artist Katie O'Brien
Who Killed Sarah Stout?
There’s been a great mystery afoot on campus this winter, and the Haverford community is being called upon to help solve it. Sarah Stout, a wealthy British Quaker woman, has been found dead, presumably strangled. But the investigation of her alleged murderer, Spencer Cowper, and his accomplices has been fraught with scandal—rumored adultery, forged love letters, suicide accusations and political backstabbing—and they have been acquitted at trial. Did we mention that this murder actually took place in 1699 and that the case was never solved?
Jen Rajchel BMC ’11, who serves a dual appointment as assistant director of the Tri-Co Digital Humanities and Digital Scholarship Curator at Haverford, is reopening the case in the court of public opinion on February 28 with Who Killed Sarah Stout? This interactive exhibit, held in Magill Library's Sharpless Gallery, is based on the holding of Haverford’s Special Collections relating to Cowper’s 1699 trial, which was one of the first to use an autopsy as evidence.
“Researching in the archives can be a bit like a detective adventure,” says Rajchel, who conceived of this participatory murder-mystery game as a way to promote use of Special Collections by students and faculty. “This is especially true of the material relating to this trial because of the recorded conflicting public opinion and accounts surrounding it. One of the most compelling aspects of researching the trial was negotiating the multiple sources and conflicting accounts of the case to inform my own interpretation. Every search in the Collections uncovered new bits of evidence. The form of the exhibit really speaks to that experience.”
Visitors to the exhibit, which is made possible with funding from a private foundation to promote Quaker digital scholarship, can explore several 17th century locations of Stout’s village to unearth evidence and read important documents related to the case. They can visit the local coffeehouse, the Glove and Dolphin tavern, the Stout’s barn or the Quaker Meeting House to gather clues by overhearing the defendants on the night of the murder or witnessing the autopsy. They can also read primary source material, such as pamphlets of post-trial commentary or a book of 18th century anatomical drawings, and view artifacts, like a Meeting House bench, from the time period.
There is also a digital component of the game that summons a character from the trial (such as Cowper himself or Sarah Stout’s mother) on a mobile device to give players further clues. This online component, which allows the historical characters to be in dialogue with the archives and the game participants, was designed by Rose Abernathy ’13 and illustrated by Vanessa Hernandez ’13.
“The exhibit is truly a collaborative effort,” says Rajchel, who was also aided by Assistant Curator Mary Clare O’Donnell ’14. “One of the most exciting parts about working in a co-circular space is the fluidity with which students translate the work from their classes to the project… Rose, Mary Clare and Vanessa were truly colleagues in designing and creating the exhibit. Their creativity, insight, critical thinking and scholarship really helped to shape the exhibit in crucial ways.”
“The goal of the game is to let the visitors enter Sarah Stout's world,” says Abernathy, a computer science major who aims to be a game developer and relished the experience of designing for a mobile app. “Jen wanted visitors to explore the evidence and make their own decision about who killed Sarah Stout as if they were her contemporaries.”
You can make your own decision about the titular mystery by visiting the exhibit in Magill Library and following the hashtag #WhoKilledSStout on Twitter. March 18 will be Judgment Day, when the exhibit’s visitors’ verdicts will be announced and we’ll find out who, in fact, did kill Sarah Stout (at least in the minds of the Haverford community).
For more information or to play the online game: exhibits.haverford.edu/sarahstout. Who Killed Sarah Stout? opens in Magill Library’s Sharpless Gallery on February 28 and runs through September 20.